Quick/Review: Robert Darnton, The Case for Books (2009)

by Anthony Mandal

The Case for Books: Past, Present, and Future, first published last year in hardback and last month in paperback, is a retrospective collection of essays by Darnton written over the last thirty years, and published principally in the New York Review of Books, but also in other journals such as Daedalus and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Divided into three sections—Future, Present and Past—the collection of linked essays begins with an interrogative piece focused on the Google Books digitization initiative and its potential impact for scholars and readers worldwide in the rapidly changing world of new media. The book continues with essays that focus on the opportunities supplied through the emergent world of digital economies over the last fifteen years. The final section offers some interesting insights into the politics of textual conservation (and how they may have failed dismally in the post-war era), as well as the value of book history and bibliography in sounding the depths of textual uncertainty, effortlessly bringing Shakespeare, commonplace books and Voltaire into his ruminations.

Darnton provides a persuasive and nuanced discourse on issues relating to history of the book and, more crucially perhaps, our own present negotiations with textuality. Although this book amounts in many ways to a polemical text, it is nevertheless self-aware polemic and Darnton charts a cautious course between criticism and sympathy in his essays, constructing a dialogic text in many ways. This is a must-read for literary scholars, book historians and anyone interested in the ways in which our response to textuality is shaped by material and economic concerns that we may overlook in our usual responses.


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